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press clipping
Hurricane plan still fuzzy on details
Evacuation shelters, Amtrak use uncertain
Sunday, May 07, 2006
By Mark Schleifstein Staff writer

The mayor of Baton Rouge -- a likely refuge for tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans if a storm hits this season -- was more than a little irked. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin last week unveiled an elaborate hurricane plan without so much as a call to his counterpart upriver. Advertisement

The River Center, Baton Rouge's equivalent of the Superdome, would not be available for sheltering New Orleanians, Mayor Kip Holden announced.

More bad vibes emanated from Houston, which is still trying to figure out how to house -- and police -- Louisianians who fled there after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Nagin plan, which pivots on people without vehicles using public transportation, a first in the city's history, raised another urgent question: Given how many police officers went AWOL during Katrina, was it realistic to depend so heavily on bus drivers to get citizens out of harm's way ahead of a hurricane? Wouldn't they be more inclined to stay with their families even if that meant defying a mayoral mandate?

The city's solution to the bus driver issue resides in the terms of their contract, said Rosalind Blanco Cook, spokeswoman for the Regional Transit Authority. They are required to stay on the job, and as an added inducement, they will be permitted to put their families on the buses that they're driving.

The issue of what kind of reception the evacuees could expect in other cities also was smoothed over by week's end, as New Orleans officials continued troubleshooting the ambitious, unprecedented blueprint for mass evacuation.

Hampton Grunewald, executive assistant to Holden, said Baton Rouge has designated 51 sites to be used as shelters during the upcoming hurricane season and that New Orleans evacuees will be welcomed.

"Baton Rouge is still a sheltering city," Grunewald said. "All Mayor Holden is saying is that the River Center will not be used. The River Center was never on the list as a shelter." Grunewald said the convention space along the Mississippi River in downtown Baton Rouge ended up being used because a number of shelters at school buildings had to be shut down to allow Baton Rouge students -- and those from New Orleans -- to return to school. In all, Baton Rouge opened 147 shelters after Katrina and Rita.

"There were heavy damages, well over $1 million to the facility," Grunewald said. "And it's not that different than New Orleans, where Mayor Nagin made it clear that the Superdome won't be used again."

Houston would help again

In Houston, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White said the city would open shelters for evacuees again if another major storm hits its neighbor.

But White has made it clear that he's upset with the way Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are handling the treatment of long-term evacuees from last year's storms.

Houston officials arranged for dozens of apartment complexes to fix up their facilities to qualify for FEMA rental vouchers that were supposed to be provided to evacuees for 12 months. Instead, FEMA halted the voucher program this month and instead started paying rental money directly to evacuees, some of whom are falling behind on their rents.

But that won't get in the way of the city offering assistance in the event of another hurricane, a spokesman for the mayor said.

Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower said the state's last emergency shelter for victims of Katrina and Rita closed there just two weeks ago.

"We do still have a lot of guests in the city that are still trying to decide if they're going back or if they're going to stay," Hightower said. "But we certainly want people to know that they're welcome in Shreveport if we have another hurricane this season."

Robert Latham, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said the welcome mat is out in his state, too.

Latham said that although the state had 78,000 shelter spaces available after Katrina last year, only about 18,000 were used.

He recommended that people choosing to evacuate to Mississippi use Interstate 55, on the west side of Lake Maurepas, to reach shelters in areas north of Jackson, rather than Interstate 59, which leads to Hattiesburg.

"That's where all the major evacuation routes converge, and it's a tremendous burden on the law enforcement authorities in Hattiesburg," he said. Taking I-55 to Jackson, he said, evacuees can then move north to Grenada and on to Memphis, Tenn.; west toward Monroe; or east to Meridian, Miss.

Shelter sites unclear

But plenty of potential glitches remain to be worked out, said New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert.

"My goal is creating an environment that is conducive to everybody leaving when we ask them to leave," Ebbert said Friday. "But what's very important to that goal is you have to know where you're going."

In the past, state officials have lined up shelter locations immediately before a hurricane, based on their availability and where storm trackers predict landfall.

And it can be difficult for anyone to know whether a specific shelter will be open because shelters might fill while the evacuee is on the road, said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The Transportation Department is lining up contracts with bus companies to supplement the city's fleet, but that's hard to do before the state decides what shelters will be open, he said.

The chicken-or-egg scenario also is complicating the city's effort to arrange transportation alternatives, Ebbert said. For instance, the city still is negotiating with Amtrak, a federal system, for transporting the elderly and people with special medical needs.

Part of the problem, Ebbert said, is that the city can't tell Amtrak where the special needs patients will be taken because the state hasn't announced where those shelters will be.

Dr. Jimmy Guidry, the state health officer, said the city complicated that decision-making process by including elderly evacuees with the special needs patients who are expected to use the train.

"Usually, they go to a general shelter, and general shelters are not our issue," Guidry said. "If they bring both types of clients by train, would we be responsible for moving them by bus to a shelter?"

Ironing out details by June

Details of the evacuation plan are expected to be worked out by June 1, the beginning of hurricane season, Lambert and Guidry said, adding that the state has committed to making buses available for general evacuees and those with special needs, if city-arranged buses or the Amtrak plan doesn't work. State officials say the confusion about shelter locations also should be over by June 1.

Meanwhile, Cook said the RTA expects to have 80 to 100 buses available to transport evacuees from pickup locations around the city to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they will be processed and transferred to other buses to be transported to shelters.

Cook said the agency also has more than 40 lift vans and sedans available to move special-needs evacuees to whatever pickup point the city decides to use.

At the end of the evacuee transfer process, most of the RTA buses will be moved out of the city to areas less likely to flood, Ebbert said. A handful will be moved into a storage area in the city that's considered floodproof, to speed their use after the storm.

Ebbert said the city is working with the American Red Cross to identify evacuation shelters within the city that can be used during a tropical storm or smaller hurricane by people living in clusters of FEMA trailers, many of whom are emergency personnel and their families. The trailers are vulnerable to rough weather.

People living in FEMA trailers in the yards of houses they're rebuilding or repairing are urged to use the houses for shelter, in addition to the public shelters.

Evacuating patients

Ebbert said the city will "err on the side of safety" this year in calling for evacuations. While in most cases, a tropical storm or Category 1 or 2 hurricane will require evacuation only of trailers, some Category 2 storms and all larger storms will require full-blown, and possibly mandatory, evacuations, largely based on estimates of the storm surge they will produce.

State Department of Health and Hospitals' Jimmy Guidry said the state is approaching the evacuation and sheltering of potential evacuees with medical problems in a variety of ways.

Nursing homes are required to have their own evacuation plans, he said. If a plan falls through, the state will assist the city in providing the nursing home with backup transportation. He said local hospitals, which used to stay open, have been scrambling to update their plans now that the plan calls for their evacuation.

"We're working with the federal government through the National Disaster Medical System to arrange to have those patients moved," he said. In some cases, the hospitals have made arrangements to move their patients by ground transportation to hospitals outside the area. Others plan to fly patients and staff to more distant health facilities.

For special-needs evacuees living in their own homes, Guidry said, "the best plan is to go with your family and friends," even if the city is successful in arranging a transportation deal with Amtrak. He said relying on the government could put them at risk because it's still unclear whether the resources they need will arrive on time.

Both Ebbert and Guidry warned residents to make their own evacuation plans, using their own transportation if possible, before the beginning of the hurricane season.

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Mark Schleifstein can be reached at or (504) 826-3327.